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The Bonnet Carre Diversion Structure to divert water from the Mississippi north of New Orleans

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports today that the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers will opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway on Monday to divert floodwater that may threaten the levees at New Orleans. The spillway, bracketed by guide levees, diverts floodwater to Lake Pontchartrain. It was last used during the 2008 flood. Yesterday the paper reported on the Morganza Floodway, which diverts water to the Atchafalaya Basin and which the Corps may open later next week. Meanwhile, Len Bahr at LaCoastPost is discussing the effect these diversions will have on the coastal region.

Bonnet Carre Diversion Structure

Bonnet Carre Structure: Floodway

St. Charles Parish, Louisiana

Following the Flood of 1927, the Corps of Engineers abandoned its levees-only policy that had governed flood control since the flood of 1882 and adopted Charles Ellet’s plan to relieve flooding on the Mississippi through floodways, artificial distributaries. The Corps designed a project flood, one that flowed past Cairo, Illinois at the mouth of the Ohio at 2,360,000 cubic feet per second and past the Old River at 3,000,000 cubic feet per second. The Corps constructed four floodways: the Bird’s Point to New Madrid Floodway, the Morganza Floodway and the West Atchafalaya Floodway, which feed into the Atchafalaya River, and the Bonnet Carre Floodway, which feeds into Lake Pontchartrain. Of the 3,000,000 cubic feet per second streaming past Old River, the West Atchafalaya and the Morganza Floodways would siphon off half, leaving the other half to continue on down to the Bonnet Carre Floodway, where an additional 250,000 cubic feet per second would be diverted to Lake Pontchartrain through structure a 7,000 feet long into a six-mile long spillway hemmed in by guide levees.

Location and Configuration of the Bonnet Carre Spillway

The Corps built the structure downstream and on the opposite bank from Bonnet Carre Point, located thirty-three miles above New Orleans, where the Mississippi takes a sharp right turn. This is the place where four times between 1849 and 1882, the Mississippi broke through its left bank and created a crevasse. In 1849 the river flowed for six months through a crevasse 7,000 feet wide. The Corps chose a site downstream from the Bonnet Carre crevasse where the soil was firmer and could support the massive structure.

Crane tracks above the stop logs on the Bonnet Carre Diversion Structure

The Bonnet Carre structure is in essence a huge stop-log structure. The Corps set 7,000 timbers side by side in a concrete structure that forms a dam across the main line levee. Once the engineers decide to open the spillway, two cranes run along the top of the structure and pull the timbers out one at a time and lay them across the top. The process takes thirty-six hours. If it needs to be done more quickly, the Corps can release twenty timbers at a time and open the spillway in three hours.

Since its completion the Corps has opened the spillway about once every ten years, sending Mississippi water into Lake Pontchartrain, which then flows into Lake Borgne. Though the initial response to the influx of freshwater is negative, for several years after both lakes experience increased levels of oyster, crab, and fishery production. However, the nine million cubic yards of sediment that get left behind in the spillway has to be removed. When the Mississippi runs high, but the spillway is not needed remains closed, water leaks through between the timber at a rate of less than 10,000 cubic feet per second, stimulating the natural cycle of spring flooding to the Lake Pontchartrain estuary.[i]


[i] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, “Bonnet Carre Spillway,” http://www.mvn.usace.army.mil/pao/bcarre/bcarre.htm.

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3 Responses

  1. I’m astonished by the construction of the spillway – the use of those timbers. And it’s very interesting that there’s a beneficial effect even in times when it isn’t needed for flood control.

    I must say – after trying to sort my way through all of this to write one blog post, I’m also astonished that it took only ten years for your book. On the other hand, it doesn’t take long for bits and pieces to begin to fit together.

    Just last night I bumped into the discussions between James Eads and the Corps over the wisdom of the levee-only approach. “Wait!”, I thought. “I know that name!” And indeed I do.
    I went back and read your post about his bridge again with new appreciation.

    And, somehow I’d missed that my beloved Bayou Teche once was the main course of the Mississippi. How could I have missed that?
    Well, I did, and probably a good bit more.

    I keep thinking what it must be like for people like you and John Barry to be watching this. I keep thinking of Faulker’s line – “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”.

  2. Thanks Varnish Gal:

    All those bayous, big and little, which meander to the Gulf of Mexico through the Louisiana coastal lands, once carried the Mississippi.

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